Kansas Law — With Limits — Promises More Will Be Revealed About Child Deaths

Jun 19, 2018
Originally published on June 15, 2018 12:38 pm

Adrian Jones. Evan Brewer. Conner Hawes. Lucas Hernandez.

News coverage of those children’s deaths and others under the state’s watch galvanized public outrage over the past three years and drew more scrutiny to the troubled child welfare system in Kansas.

Conner was in foster care when he died. Reports that Adrian and Evan were being abused had been brought to the attention of the Department for Children and Families, but they were not removed from the home where they were later killed — nor was Lucas, though DCF says it hasn’t yet determined whether he died from abuse or neglect.

After all these tragedies, families and journalists looking for answers were often stymied by the agency, which refused to release records.

A new law set to go into effect in July 1 is aimed at making DCF more forthcoming about the deaths of children in state custody or whose cases had been referred to its investigators.

But critics say the measure doesn’t go far enough, and won’t restore confidence in an agency marred by a series of horrific, heartbreaking stories of children dying from abuse in recent years when many say that could have been prevented.

Timely release

The celebration of what would have been Adrian Jones’ 10th birthday on May 15 brought people from as far as Wisconsin and Hawaii to a barbecue at Prairie Park in Lawrence.

Men wearing aprons seared chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, smoke drifting back into the covered picnic area where other adults sat chatting. Kids ran around with water guns, screeching as they drenched each other. Some of the older boys wandered down to the basketball court for a pickup game, taking their shirts off in the 80-degree air, still humid from morning thunderstorms.

Some knew Adrian and his family before he died. Others had heard about his death on the news and got in touch with his grandmother, Judy Conway, offering support from afar. Most brought kids along to the birthday cookout, many of them close to Adrian’s age if he were still alive.

It’s been more than two years since Adrian died. More than two years since Conway learned his remains had been found in a pigpen at his dad and stepmom’s house. More than two years since she sent a records request to the Department for Children and Families, asking what the agency knew about what happened to her grandson.

Adrian was one of 14 Kansas children who were determined to have died as a result of abuse in 2015.

For more than a year, everything Conway learned about her grandson’s death came from interviews his stepmom did with reporters, and later, from court proceedings, as Adrian’s father and stepmother were charged with the boy’s death.

“I felt like I was just getting these little snippets of everything,” Conway said. “And the more I was hearing, the madder I was getting and the more I wanted to find out.”

It wasn’t until a year and a half later that DCF finally provided roughly 2,000 pages of records on Adrian, heavily redacted. They revealed numerous reports of abuse to DCF’s hotline, painting a general picture of Adrian’s violent years with his father and stepmother. 

Under the new law, Conway would have been able to get some information much sooner. The law requires DCF to send a summary of its interactions with kids who died within seven days of a request. That requirement applies to cases of children who were in the state’s custody when they died, and also those who died from abuse or neglect that DCF had been alerted to.

Dianne Keech was deputy director of prevention and protection services at DCF in 2015 and was a member of the State Child Death Review Board, a panel of doctors, attorneys and child welfare experts that reviews youth fatalities in Kansas.

Keech said the summary she saw for the Child Death Review Board in Adrian’s case wasn’t accurate. She’s skeptical  the summaries that will be provided now, following a similar format, will be trustworthy accounts of DCF’s involvement in a child’s case.

DCF spokeswoman Taylor Forrest said the agency will release all the information required by statute, including a summary of all reports of abuse or neglect, their findings after investigating them, and any services the agency recommended.

A chance to make their case

For people wanting the agency’s full records on a child, not just a summary, there’s a thornier process. The Wichita Eagle and other news organizations grappled with the disclosure policies after 3-year-old Evan Brewer’s remains were discovered in September, encased in concrete.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat and the architect of several amendments to the transparency legislation that will push DCF to disclose more, said eight news organizations requested Evan’s records shortly after his body was found.

That triggered DCF’s standard procedure before the new law. First, determine if it’s a death from abuse or neglect, which up until now have been the only cases subject to disclosure. Then, notify “affected individuals” — entities that have a stake in whether the records are released — and give them seven days to object to opening up those files.

The City of Wichita filed a motion to seal the records to protect its ability to investigate Evan’s case, and a judge did so.

The new law opens that part of the process up to appeal. When an affected individual — such as the local district attorney or police — wants records to be sealed, journalists and others who ask for records will get a chance to make their case before a judge for why they should be released before they’re sealed.

“There has been a culture of secrecy all over the statehouse and in particular at DCF,” Carmichael said. “So we wanted to open records up.”

It wasn’t until March that DCF and the local authorities in Wichita agreed to provide The Eagle with a redacted copy of Evan’s case file, only after his mother and her boyfriend were charged with his murder.

The records showed accounts of horrific abuse to which DCF had been alerted, including incidents where he was choked or knocked out, needing to be revived with CPR. 

For Rochelle Chronister, who headed the child welfare agency in the 1990s, there’s urgency to getting information out about what happened to kids like Evan.

“Obviously, it doesn’t help that kid, but maybe it does the next one,” she said. “When you shine the light on what’s actually going on, I think that becomes helpful rather than just guessing, did somebody drop the ball, or was this inevitable in some way?”

If reporters had been able to persuade the court not to seal the records on Evan as it did in November, they could have exposed mistakes in how DCF handled the boy’s case months earlier.

A wider net

Under federal law, state child welfare agencies have always been authorized to release some information in response to public records requests following child deaths or near-fatalities as a result of abuse or neglect. But the law Kansas lawmakers passed in May expands disclosure requirements to include the release of summaries of DCF’s involvement in the case of any child who dies in the state’s custody, regardless of the circumstances.

In 2017, Conner Hawes was one of five children who died while in DCF custody. He drowned in his foster parents’ backyard after falling into a decorative fish pond. According to DCF regulations, a pond like that should not have been accessible to children in the house without supervision.

But The Wichita Eagle’s request for DCF’s records in Conner’s case was denied because the agency said his death was an accident, not the result of neglect.

“Neglect causes accidents all the time,” said Lyndon Vix, The Eagle’s attorney, who’s represented the paper in fights for records after several children’s deaths. “Just because it wasn’t an intentional death doesn’t mean it wasn’t caused by neglect."

Without any access to DCF’s information on Conner’s case, it was impossible for the public to learn what had led to Conner’s death — whether investigators hadn’t gone into the yard at all; whether they had noticed the pond; whether they did, but didn’t follow up with the family to see that they’d taken the appropriate precautions.

Real transparency, or little change?

Gina Meier-Hummel came into the top spot at DCF promising more transparency in how the agency handles its cases, particularly when they end in a child’s death. Deaths like Adrian’s and Evan’s had rocked an agency already on thin ice with the public because of runaways going missing from the foster care system and kids sleeping in offices without a better place to stay.

When the 2018 Legislative session began, Meier-Hummel and her staff followed through with first draft of the child death disclosure law — albeit absent some of the more stringent language later added in by legislators, like the seven-day turnaround and the application to the cases of all kids who die in DCF custody.

“When the governor and I first spoke, we talked very candidly about the need for this agency in particular to be transparent moving forward, and about the need for us to be forthright about the work we’re doing to change the agency and the culture, to assure the public that we are taking things very seriously,” Meier-Hummel said at the bill signing ceremony.

Gov. Jeff Colyer underscored the idea that disclosing DCF’s involvement with children who later died will help keep other kids safe.

“Unfortunately, horrible tragedies happen, and we want to be as open as possible to ensure they never happen again,” he said. “There is no greater duty than to take care of our Kansas kids.”

But for critics, this new law is a half-measure, at best.

A summary of DCF’s involvement with Adrian Jones’ case would have given Judy Conway more information more quickly. But she said she wanted the entire record of what DCF had done and, in her opinion, failed to do, as well.

“We need a lot more in place to protect children, not just a sharing of simple little tiny pieces of the record,” she said. “I know when my grandson was born, I know when my grandson died, I know that they found him in a pigpen, I don't need the records to tell me that. I want all the intimate details in between, everything. I want it all.”

She could still request that full record under the new law. But it would be subject to the same requirements, like notifying other “affected individuals” and letting them ask to keep them out of the public’s hands, that kept Evan Brewer’s files from The Eagle for months, and Adrian’s file out of her hands for more than a year.

And although the new disclosure rules aren’t in effect yet, some are concerned that the agency’s decision not to release information about the death of 5-year-old Lucas Hernandez shows DCF’s promises of transparency don’t go quite as far as they’d hoped.

The Eagle saw a court petition that described extensive bruising and black eyes on Lucas in 2017 and early 2018. He disappeared in February, and his body was found last month.

But DCF hasn’t determined Lucas’s death was from abuse or neglect, and won’t release a summary or start the records release notification process until it that determination is made.

Rep. John Carmichael of Wichita said DCF is “stonewalling” by not starting the release process.

“I suspect when the truth comes out, we're going to find that there were complaints to DCF -- just as there were in the Brewer case,” he said.

With Meier-Hummel at the helm, DCF is working to overcome public mistrust in an agency that’s had a number of high-profile missteps in recent years. The agency has opened up more of its inner workings through the secretary’s testimonies before the Legislature and a new dashboard on its website tracking progress toward reintegrating children with their families and improving child safety, among other goals.

But this is an agency that has a history of shredding documents in abuse and neglect cases, and that makes Conway skeptical of all the talk of openness.

“Do I have complete trust in DCF?” Conway said. “No, I don't. Do I think they're going to be 100 percent accountable and transparent? No. We'll see.”

Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.

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